I was fascinated from a young age by the possibility of life beyond our planet. This was decades before Carl Sagan came along with his “billions and billions of stars” and the mathematical probability that the human species was unlikely to be the lone set of sentient beings in the universe. So, not surprisingly, I read whatever I could about UFO sightings, especially on what later came to be known as “close encounters of the third kind.” In my middle years I even had lunch with the then chair of the Northwestern University Astronomy Department, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the most famous UFO researcher of his day.
My dad, Jacob (“Jack”) Newton Feldman, was the child of East European immigrants. His father, Grandpa Paul, was a loveable scallywag from Romania who arrived at Ellis Island in 1898. I’ve written about him in an earlier blog. Dad’s mother, Ida Litzky Feldman, landed in New York City around the same time from Odessa, Ukraine. The daughter of a scribe who meticulously copied Torah scrolls and was considered a holy man because of his daily proximity to the Word of God, Grandma Ida was a by-the-book Orthodox Jewish woman who raised her three sons to be the same. Dad was the oldest. She failed with all three.
Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but for me it’s a Camino. So what’s a Camino? With a small “c” it’s simply a way, path, or road. It may even be the Spanish translation of the Daoist concept of the Tao. Dictionaries don’t help here, and there’s no one around I can ask. But with a capital “c” the word refers to the Pilgrimage Way of St. James the Apostle, which starts at various spots all over Europe and concludes in Northwestern Spain at the Cathedral of St. James (Santiago) in a city called Santiago de Campostela (St. James of the Starry Field) in the Province of Galicia.
In my 81 years on the planet, I’ve been blessed to have known my share of characters. None, though, tops my paternal grandfather, Paul (Pincus) Feldman, who died when I was 14. Grandpa Paul came to this country in the 1890s from Galati (pronounced “Galatz”), near the Black Sea in Romania. He and his boyfriend, both 19, landed on Ellis Island, where their adventure began. The Jewish community in Denver was short two males over the age of 13 to complete their minyan, or religious quorum, and make it possible for them to arrange their conference calls to God. (It would have been assumed in those days that all Jewish men over 13 would have been bar mitzvah.) The Denverites had pooled their money and transmitted it to a Jewish charity in New York City with the request that they send the first two Jewish greenhorns over 13 with no place to go to Colorado. God was getting impatient! So, they pinned tickets on the boys’ jackets, took them to Penn Station, and off they went to what Grandpa always called “Calarada, Denver.”
The Talmud sternly states that a Jewish father who denies his son (!) a religious education is worse than a thief. But my father’s having done so made total sense to me. While his father was a lovable ne’er-do-well in the mold of Zorba the Greek, his mother, the daughter of a scribe (a Torah copier, not a member of the religio-political party in the New Testament), was a zealously Orthodox Jewish woman who literally beat religion into her three sons. Once Dad was out of the house and on his own, he vowed never to inflict religion on his children. The results were that most of my religious upbringing, thanks to our “colored maid” Florine and four years at a Protestant boarding school, was Christian, and I am a Christian (Episcopalian) today.
My mother, Estelle (Jewish name: Esther), had a sister, Helen (Jewish name: Hannah). As fraternal twins, not only didn’t they look alike—Aunt Helen looked to me like a female Bob Hope with long hair, while my mother looked like, well, my mother—but they also had opposite personalities. While Mother was earnest, her twin was silly. They even sounded different. Mother had somewhere acquired an upscale accent, whereas Aunt Helen had the cow-like sounds I associated with the Southern New Jersey rural community where they had both grown up.
In middleclass Jewish-American families, education isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Mine was true to form, and lucky I was to profit from it. Anyway, my parents, both born in the first decade of the 20th century of recent immigrants to a country where laws against anti-Semitism had not yet been written, understood that the coin of the realm was money. If you had it, you were a king; if you didn’t, you were a bum. And being Jewish bums was not the future they had in mind for their two kids, my older sister, Natalie, and me.
I haven’t had a lot of good to say about the USA during the last four years. But even before the disastrous 2016 presidential election, the nightmare version of the American Dream was frequently on my mind. My otherwise good, supportive parents as the children of immigrants and adults during the Great Depression had an overly high regard for the elixir quality of money. My sister was counseled to “marry well,” and the notable investment in my private education—four years at boarding school followed by four more at Yale—was primarily so I could become a well-paid professional. Alas for them, my sister was widowed at 40 by her middle-manager husband in Argentina, and I became a member of a notably poorly paid profession, college teaching.
A Boulder-based videographer has been doing 15-minute videos on the life and work of "creatives" in the Rocky Mountains region of our spiritual organization, Subud. The video about me as a writer/teacher has just come out, the 5th in this series. I think it turned out quite well, so I wanted to share it with you here. Enjoy! Ren Ruslan
Right now, just ten days from Christmas in this year of our Covid, 2020, my church, St. John’s Episcopal in Boulder, Colorado, is doing a weekly Bible Study on the Acts of the Apostles. About 20 of us Zoom in each Wednesday morning while a clergy or lay leader facilitates a 75-minute discussion on the two chapters assigned for the week in question. This Wednesday is the last session before the Holidays. We’ll finish up sometime in January.
Sometimes I wonder—more frequently in the last four years than at any time since the Vietnam War. Here are two provocative sets of statistics. Set 1: With just 4.25% of the world’s population (updated 12/3/2020 by worldometers.info), the United States has 21.2% of the world’s documented Covid cases, including 18% of Covid deaths (updated 12/3/2020 by the World Health Organization: covid19.who.int). Set 2: With just 4.25% of the world’s population (reference above), the United States has 20% of the world’s prison population (as of 1/16/2020 per prisonpolicy.org). How parallel these two datasets are! I should also mention that people of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white people. (This is especially true of Black men.) According to the NAACP, African Americans are more than five times more likely than whites to be imprisoned (naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/).
In this pre-Covid-vaccine Thanksgiving, being grateful is not so easy. Still, there is a time-honored medicine you can start taking now: the gratitude pill. First, tradition. Meister Eckhart, the German Dominican theologian, philosopher, and mystic who died around 1327, famously said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” The modern version of Eckhart’s advice is counting our blessings. When we regularly follow this practice, we come to realize how much we have to be thankful for and can live a happy, or happier, life. In achieving this goal, we often think of those less fortunate than we are. “I complained that I had no shoes until I met someone who had no feet,” goes the saying.
Why is this Thanksgiving unlike all other Thanksgivings? Well, for all other Thanksgivings, families gather in large numbers over elaborately prepared turkey dinners. But Thanksgiving 2020 is happening during an unprecedented surge in Covid 19. The careful and the cautious are staying home. Enough traditional gatherings will take place, however, to create millions of superspreader events, unintentionally honoring our maskless—and clueless— outgoing President.
Some of you are old enough to remember Science. It’s something virtually all of us used to believe in before the advent of a religion called Trumpianity. Now, not so much. But back in the day when this 81-year-old was learning about the world, he was taught that science and the scientific method comprised the best way to know what was what and what wasn’t. Anyway, in a newspaper supplement, the November 2020 issue of Spry Living, I was astonished to read a little article, “Why You Need to Wise Up.” “People with compassion,” I read, “are less lonely…"
And the Trumpette shall tweet
And Republicans shall tremble.
They’ll even dissemble
To keep him around.
But Biden will beat him.
Joe Biden will beat him.
The Lord has spoken:
Your country is broken.
But I have spoken.
And now he’ll go away.
Dear Q, where are you?
Where are you? Where are you?
Please tell us, please tell us.
Please tell us what to think.
Our head is in the drink.
Their realities, they stink!
You said he’d be elected.
Oh boy, are we dejected!
Our man has been rejected.
How could you be so wrong?
But I have spoken.
Your country, it was broken.
That Q was a deceiver.
But Biden’s a good leader.
He’ll save your land for me.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a mini-vacation of four nights to a guest ranch in nearby Wyoming, just two-and-a-half hours away by car. A main attraction turned out to be the night sky. Unlike in our Boulder, Colorado (pop. 110,000), you could really see the stars there: not just the first-magnitude ones as at home, but even the Milky Way in all its star-studded glory.
This little essay, however, is not about astral bodies. Rather, as I approach my 81st birthday on November 6th, a week from this writing, I’m thinking about the well-known people I’ve been fortunate to have met in my life.
The assigned Gospel passage in our church for the Feast of All Saints’ Day is Matthew 5:1-12, AKA the Beatitudes. Sunday School kids are sometimes taught to refer to them as the Be-Attitudes, a useful misunderstanding of the term. Actually, the theological expression comes from the Latin beatus, -a, -um, meaning “blessed” or “saintly.” It’s a fitting concept, and Gospel passage, for All Saints’ Day.
Forgive me! This is a subject I’ve written on before. Still, I consider it so important in today’s world of divisions and divisiveness that I am doing so again. In this morning’s Old Testament Lesson in our Episcopal Church we read in Leviticus 19, in the mid-teen verses, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin. . . . You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
As a resident in beautiful, mountainous Colorado, I totally get my fellow Coloradans who say they prefer taking a hike in our Front Range to going to church. They feel something in the silence of 10,000 feet that they don’t in a brick-and-mortar building where lots of words are spoken, many old-fashioned terms about a deity and other beings they have no mental or emotional contact with. Today, I had such an experience myself, although granted I am a regular attendee at and enthusiastic member of Boulder’s historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
As part of my continuing education as a white American and thus a beneficiary of systemic racism, I am reading a helpful, hard-hitting book by the mixed-race author-activist Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk about Race (Seal Press, 2019). In it she asks her readers, especially the white ones, to undertake a simple yet daunting task: To reflect on their privilege in 21st-century America. My list numbers 30 items and counting.
My wife, Dr. Cedar Barstow, is busy this week teaching her “basic” course,” “Right Use of Power—The Heart of Ethics.” She’s been offering it for years, not only here in Boulder, Colorado, but around the U.S. and in a dozen countries abroad. But this year is different for two reasons. First, it’s late-September 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, this is the first time she’s presented it virtually via Zoom. She has some 31 students from five or six countries. Second, as her 76th birthday nears, it’s her last time offering this annual training—a huge milestone since, as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, she finds retirement about as comfortable as eating a full bowl of very hot kim chee.
Cedar and I were on Tinaja Ridge, above Lyons, Colorado, for an all-day outdoor retreat honoring the Fall Equinox. The morning walk was brief, just 30 minutes. I began by greeting the pine tree next to the one I had hugged the last time we were here. I thanked it out loud for being a role model of steadfastness for me. After a few snapshots on my trusty iPhone 6-Plus, I headed downhill maybe 60 yards into a frozen avalanche of pinecones.
Now children—Let’s make some SENTENCES!
Between the movie and various theatrical presentations, I must have seen FIDDLER ON THE ROOF ten or more times. After all, it’s the story of my people. I know most of the lines and lyrics by heart. Each time I see it, I cry. All four of my grandparents came from shtetls like Tevye’s Anatevka, little Jewish enclaves within villages and towns in Eastern and Central Europe from which pogroms or inscription into the czar’s army had driven them. They arrived in the new promised land of America in the decade before the turn of the 20th Century. Israel was not yet available. None spoke English.
New Thought visionary Alan Cohen provides his “Daily Inspiration” bits of wisdom online. You can request them without charge at firstname.lastname@example.org. They arrive every morning in your inbox. What he offers is a sentence or two of sage advice, either from someone else, often a famous person from the past or present, or from himself. Today’s (8/28/20200), one of the latter, struck me as especially thought-provoking: “Your life is a series of opportunities to become yourself.” Indeed. We’ve been down this path before in these weekly blogs. My metaphor for getting there is the pilgrimage, the step-by-step struggle to reach a sacred destination. My wife’s and my walking 120 miles of the Camino to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Campostela, Spain, in 2017 comes to mind.